Washington Co. highway superintendent takes issue with Commission attempt to control paving projects

Gary B. Gray • Oct 29, 2013 at 11:16 AM

What on the surface Monday appeared to be an innocuous Washington County Commission resolution introduced by the Public Works Committee in support of Highway Department Superintendent Johnny Deakins instead received a chilly reception and was sent back to the committee to iron out the wrinkles.

Commissioner Mark Ferguson, the committee chairman, introduced the formal resolution recommending Deakins make county road paving projects the department’s priority. Ferguson, who called the resolution “non-binding,” said it was meant only to show support for how Deakins operated .

Under state law, Deakins has control over the location, relocation, construction, repair and maintenance of the county road system. The resolution cites that the department will from time to time enter into agreements with other governmental entities to complete road and paving projects. The resolution specifically instructed Deakins to complete scheduled road and paving projects related to county-owned property before starting any projects for outside agencies and municipalities. The resolution also asked that Deakins “provide timely progress reports to the Public Works Committee” regarding all paving projects.

“We don’t always complete all our projects before we start others,” Deakins said from the podium. “I don’t think I’ve ever failed to meet our requirements.”

Deakins named a list of his accomplishments, status, various titles and dedication to the county.

“What in that resolution do you exactly have a problem with?” Ferguson asked.

“The words, ‘before starting any other project,’ ” he answered. “We have our own budget, and we can’t do any outside projects — including schools — without the County Commission’s approval.”

County and Johnson City Commissioner David Tomita stood and defended Deakins: “This is a level of micro-managing a department, and I think it’s an insult to Mr. Deakins.”

In other business, commissioners unanimously voted to name the building housing the Washington County/ Johnson City Health Department on Princeton Road in Johnson City in honor of Dr. Hezekiah B. Hankal.

Hankal made a significant and positive impact on the lives of East Tennesseans through his work with the YMCA and other programs.

Former Commissioner Mary Alexander, former Sessions Court JudgeJohnKienerandWashington County Archivist Ned Irwin stood before commissioners and acknowledged the pronouncement.

“I’m assuming that everyone here knows about Dr. Hezekiah,” Alexander said.

Hankal’s name will grace the building, but just what type of signage will be used and the cost will be hammered out by the County Owned Property Committee.

His name is on a state historical marker near a church in Johnson City that served as a school for black children when Hankal founded it in 1889. The words on that marker in front of West Main Street Christian Church sum up Hankal’s life nicely: “Dr. Hezekiah Hankal; 1825-1903; Minister; Physician; Educator; Politician.”

Raised by a Dutch family, Hankal was the first black man in Washington County to hold a teaching certificate. He was an educator who established the first school for blacks in Johnson City. He was also a minister who started a number of churches in the area and served on the Johnson City Board of Aldermen beginning in 1887.

He was a gifted physician whose skills were sought by both black and white patients. He was credited with saving many lives during the devastating cholera epidemic of 1873. His talents also earned him prominence in Johnson City. He served on the local grand jury (something that few black citizens were asked to do in the South at the time) and he was elected as a city alderman in the late 1880s (also something unheard of at the time).

“We’ve received numerous letters supporting the building’s renaming,”CommissionChairman Greg Matherly said. “I know you’ve put a lot of work into this, and that’s great to see.”

Meanwhile, County Mayor Dan Eldridge informed commissioners the county will see approximately $700,000 in savings over the next five years thanks to the refinancing of about $8 million remaining from $16 million to $18 million in debt originally issued in the 1990s.

“The bonds were refinanced in 2004, but the interest rate on that money was about 5 percent,” Eldridge said. “We plan to refinance the remaining principal and take advantage of a 1.4 percent interest rate. We’ve already done a feasibility study of the refinancing.”

Eldridge passed out copies of a pro forma and repayment calendar that shows the debt from the bond ending in 2018. The documents will be scrutinized by the Budget Committee and make their way back to the full commission for approval.

“Out hats are off to the mayor and the Budget Committee for saving us money,” Commissioner Pat Wolfe said.

“You really need to tip your hats to (Accounts and Budgets Office Director) Bobbye Webb,” Eldridge told commissioners.

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